By Anne Pawlak
“You know you got a tree down.”
This was a frequent comment heard by Stephanie Jones, a Stevens Point resident, for days after a June thunderstorm dropped a 40-foot basswood in her front yard. Now, most people would set about trying to get a crew together to get that tree cut, split and stacked as firewood. But Stephanie Jones is not most people.
Jones, 36, is a sculptor, painter, sustainable living proponent, bartender and UWSP art student whose north side home and yard have grown into a sculpture park and outdoor art studio over the past eight years since she bought the house. “It started with an archway and a few grapevines and just kept going,” she explained. The tree so generously delivered by that storm has pretty much remained where it landed, because Jones is planning its future as a sculpture of a blue whale.
The other figure that captures the eye of passersby is likely the life-size sculpture covered in glass mosaic, dedicated to Mary Boyer, the original owner of Jones’ 100-plus-year-old home. Boyer was too young to vote when the 20th Amendment passed, and had to wait 12 years for the chance to vote for the first time. The sculpture, named “Suffragette for Obama,” began when Jones (with help from a friend) shrouded herself first in Saran wrap as a protective layer, and then clear tape, which created a mold in which to cast the concrete.
Not far from the suffragette, a cluster of silver concrete-dipped Teddy Bears huddle against each other at the base of the front steps. A recent project, Jones mused, which involved stacking the concrete-dipped bears atop one another in the fashion of a totem pole. A potter’s wheel and several in-progress vessels occupy one corner of the big front porch, looking as though the artist is ready to resume her work exactly where she left off last fall when the cold and snow of November swooped in on us. Life-sized busts appear here and there throughout the yard, and around the back, an open air art studio situated near a fire pit provides her with a place to work on current projects.
Tucked in the furthest corner of the yard is the beginning of Jones’ garden for this spring. As if sculpting, painting, studying, tending bar and seeking out
opportunities for public art is not enough to keep her busy, she also grows her own
food, and employs a somewhat unconventional method: Hugelkultur. That’s German for raised garden beds filled with decaying wood, which provides natural irrigation, air pockets for roots and fertilizer.
When asked if people ever pause and ask to see her yard, Jones said schoolchildren on walking field trips sometimes stop to look, and she has offered some impromptu tours to them, but teachers get a little nervous because some of
the sculptures feature the female form in its most natural state.
Still, she invites anyone who passes by to ask questions, and occasionally, when she finds it necessary to clear some space in her home and studio, she will set up an “art sale” on the sidewalk.
Jones invited me into her home on a chilly April afternoon. Once inside, I was enveloped in a cheery glow emanating from the glass-fronted woodstove topped with a pair of drying work boots. As she fixed me a cup of tea made from mint she grew herself, I glanced around at the walls, most of which are covered with her whimsical paintings. An enthusiastic Beagle/Pit Bull crossbreed named Bugs greeted me with a hearty wagging and a big smile, and a nearly 20-year- old cat named Zoe lay curled on a chair near the stove. You would never know this quiet, tidy home had been a bustling trivia team headquarters less than 16 hours prior. “However,” Jones pointed out, “You will note that every single painting is just a little bit crooked.”
Growing up in Wausau and Minocqua, Jones immersed herself in art classes in high school, including jewelry and ceramics courses. She was advised by a high school guidance counselor that without taking the SATs or going to college, her only option was to “go to flower arranging school.” Her short-lived study at a floral design school in Denver left her disillusioned, and she returned to her home state six months later. While many young artists leave art behind to pursue the business of making a living, she did not. It is clear that what separates Jones from the typical art student is her ambition, organization and drive to seek opportunities to share her ideas, engage her community and find ways to sustain herself via her art.
For example, she was commissioned to create the sculpture “Mirth,” which graces the courtyard of Delta Dental on Hoover Drive in Stevens Point. Her contributions to the Sculpture Park on Stevens Point’s north side include, “Above the Looking Glass” and “They.” Throughout the month of May, she is working on a new piece for the Sculpture Park, “Rapunzel’s Tower.” Jones said she looks forward to working at the park, as “the elementary students come through, and it’s a good chance to interact with them.”
Recently, her proposal was accepted to create “Bounty,” a living sculpture garden on the grounds of UWSP. Her most pressing concern for the sustainable sculpture garden with edible
perennial landscaping is maintenance, as the planned asparagus beds and blueberry and raspberry bushes will need care as the plants establish themselves. In addition to functioning as a garden, it will feature a pathway winding through the garden with pedestals for student sculptures along the path. Jones currently is seeking volunteers to donate a few hours a week over the next three years as the garden establishes itself. If all goes as planned, the student-run cafeteria in the nearby College of Professional Studies will harvest the fruit and vegetables produced by the sustainable art garden to feature on its menu.
Her efforts to reach out to the community with her art go beyond Stevens Point and Wisconsin. Pulling out her project checklist, neatly laid out on an oversized whiteboard, Jones made it clear that her ambition to seek opportunities as an artist beyond Wisconsin is just as strong as her desire to create art in her own backyard. She has applied for two residency fellowships, put together a panel for an upcoming conference in New Orleans, and entered two student art competitions. Just as she extended an invitation to volunteers to help her “release” the whale who lives inside the fallen basswood tree in her yard, it is apparent that this woman regards art as a community endeavor, and aims to extend opportunities for others to get involved.
She has submitted a proposal to lead a panel discussion at the International Sculpture Conference in New Orleans this October. If her proposal is accepted, she, along with Kristin Thielking and Mike Godell, UWSP Art Professors of Sculpture, and community artists will discuss the ties among UWSP, the community, local businesses and endeavors like the sculpture park, to show examples of how these partnerships can foster art and culture in our small communities.
“What really impressed me about Stephanie from the beginning was her drive and determination to achieve some very ambitious projects,” Thielking said. “Her positive attitude, unique aptitude for public work and community-based sculpture, and her ability to connect with some very diverse people all combine in a person with a rare vision and the fortitude to see these projects through to the end.”
How did Jones manage to leave her career to pursue life as an artist? “I took a leap. I quit my job as a realtor and went after it,” Jones replied. “Also, I am not just a painter. I don’t want to do just little things. Knowing people who build big things is helpful. I have lots of concrete friends.” Asked if the patrons of the Elbow Room (downtown bar) were aware of her work as an artist, she said, “Of course they are! That’s where I get most of my materials from. Ninety-five percent of my materials are found, sourced, or recycled.”
And the ticket dress, which was on display at the Elbow Room? That was a sight to behold. Picture a fish scale dress, with the surface covered in layers of freely-moving scallops or scales. Now picture a dress with the scales made of . . . tickets, you know, the little tickets you drop in a basket for a prize drawing, which is exactly where the tickets came from. The Elbow Room hosted a food drive for a local food pantry, and those who entered were eligible to drop their names into a basket for a prize drawing. After the drawing, Jones looked into the basket of tickets, all bearing the names of her patrons and friends, and the idea was born. Hundreds of little red tickets were hot-glued to the surface of a dress, which was then displayed on a mannequin at the Elbow Room until a patron purchased it.
Knowing how to market and promote your work is essential to making it as an artist, Stephanie insists. In that department, she is fortunate to have Thielking as an advisor and mentor. In addition, she has met many inspirational artists and teachers in her travels. On a recent trip to New Orleans, she connected with Joe and Lucianne Carmichael, a retired couple who run “The Studio in the Woods,” a retreat and studio for artists, students and environmentalists. Jones expressed a profound interest in providing that same type of retreat for emerging artists when it becomes possible for her to do so. Given the number of artists and friends she already has in her circle, and her ambition and connections regarding the world of public art, that likely will become a reality.